Real Library Innovation Or Just New Toasters

Innovate. Innovate. Innovate. It seems that innovation is all the rage these days. Even before Marc posted the results of the informal survey on “technology innovation in academic libraries”, I had considered writing a post to question if academic libraries are actually innovative at all. Yes, we harness a number of relatively new technologies to deliver a new service, but does that qualify as innovation? Perhaps we confusing something new with something innovative.

In the worlds of design and innovation there is currently a backlash movement in the works. The backlash can take the form of those who are legacy designers attacking all sorts of newcomers to the world of design, especially those in business schools and corporations where the adoption of design philosophies is being depicted as just one more business fad. Likewise, there is much being written about what counts as real innovation. Marc also pointed me to this article titled “Not Necessarily Toast.” It reports on a disagreement between two economists over whether there has been real innovation in the design and development of toasters, or whether the continuous changes in toaster technology are mostly mundane changes that largely result in the production of identical products.

Perhaps arguing over whether a new library service is truly innovative or simply something new sounds like splitting hairs. After all, what’s the difference between the two. If you introduce something new in your library, wouldn’t we all agree that is what innovation is all about? I would point you to an article that appeared in BusinessWeek titled “The Cult of Innovation: Consumers Don’t Need Purple Ketchup or Crystal Pepsi”. Is rolling out a library blog – that was identified in the survey as a technology innovation – real innovation or is it the equivalent of giving your user community purple ketchup?

In his commentary, Dan Saffer questions if we are now just “innovating for innovation’s sake in order to roll out something that is new and improved.” He believes that there is a misunderstanding about true innovation, which he says is a “combination of insight and invention.” But the critical core component of innovation, for Saffer, is whether what’s new actually resonates with the consumer (or user). As he states, “For innovation to be truly important it…needs to be derived from the unmet needs and desires of people, not simply the company’s (library’s) feeling that it needs to innovate.”

Now go back to the list of the top innovations according to the respondents of the “nine questions” survey. Do these sound like innovations – derived from the unmet needs and desires of users – or simply the result of libraries that felt they needed to roll out something new and improved? Do our faculty think institutional repositories are innovative (on the list twice)? Given the struggles to encourage faculty to deposit into them, one could be hard pressed to conclude they are fulfilling an unmet need (or perhaps we just haven’t done a good enough job convincing faculty they have an unmet need of which they are not aware).

I’m not knocking these libraries that have introduced some extraordinary new services to their user communities. I can’t argue with the value of being able to offer continuous new improvements. But let’s think more carefully about innovation and what it really means to produce something truly innovative. As Saffer says, “Rather than simply making novel products and services, we should strive to make better, more meaningful ones. Now that would be a true innovation.”

8 thoughts on “Real Library Innovation Or Just New Toasters

  1. I like reading job postings in library journals for how they reflect the changing expectations in library field. In the latest issue of American Libraries, April 2007 (Design Issue) the two words that stand prominently at the beginning of almost all postings are innovative and energetic. Some reverse the order. The distant third is creative, followed by the professional qualifications criteria. How are search committees identifying one innovative candidate from another in the field where innovation is hardly a breakthrough?

  2. I do wonder where all the librarians who suffer from lassitude and dullness get jobs. You’d think, from these ads, that these qualities are somehow distinctive among librarians.

  3. Yeah, everyone wants to hire an innovative librarian. I wonder if they could tell you what that really means. If they encountered someone who really wanted to do some truly innovative things in the library, they’d probably be saying thanks but no thanks pretty quickly.

  4. Finally–someone understands! I was in library school just as the electronic “revolution” kicked off. Students were quitting the programme because they saw no future in libraries with everything “becoming” electronic. An old classicist who was retiring the next year made a salient observation in class: that human kind did not stop gesturing because we began speaking, that writing did not replace speech, printing did not kill off writing and radio/television (and film) did not kill off printing. Based on the evidence, he observed, libraries would integrate electronic data and were certainly going to change, but were unlikely to be replaced by one more recording/distribution technology. Well, here we are, and now the Web community is pursuing models that classify search returns. Hmm, sounds like a library model to me.

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